He Walked by Night

Another compelling film. Channel 278 – CHARGE!

Like Shield for Murder (previous blog), we get a murder in the first few minutes. Richard Basehart shoots an off duty copy after being interrupted breaking into a store. Basehart has all the tools, including nitroglycerin, to crack a safe. His character is meticulous and intelligent. He’s several steps ahead of the cops. But he’s also alone, his only friend a dog. Like Edmond O’Brien’s cop killer in Shield for Murder, Basehart is cold and unsympathetic. However, Basehart remains intriguing, in part because we know little about him.

The film is credited to Alfred L. Werker, a journeyman director; however, Anthony Mann took over during the shooting and it shows. The year before he made T-Men (1947), with cinematographer John Alton, who also worked on He Walked by Night. Despite the bright and sunny look of Los Angeles at the start, with a staid narration, giving the film a documentary feel, we descend into darkness and shadows for much of the film, culminating in a dramatic chase through the storm drains of Los Angeles.

The opening of He Walked by Night and the way it portrays the Los Angeles police established a familiar approach to the police procedural. One of the forensic expert is portrayed by Jack Webb, who created Dragnet (a television series and film). The film uses a familiar Dragnet refrain: “The names were changed to protect the innocent.” The portrayal of the Los Angeles police in Walked is carried through by Webb in his series. Hard working policemen get results through diligence and hard work (never through beating confessions out of suspects).

The film’s effectiveness derives from its ability to shift from the cops toiling, at first ineffectively, to the perpetrator working as hard the cops to perfect his own illicit trade. The police show some admiration for the murderer’s methodology. Basehart’s sociopath, Roy Martin, reveals little about his motivation, in part because he never revealed himself to anyone. We know he was in the Sinnal Corps during World War II and worked for the police communications group. This is how remains undetected for so long, knowing police procedure and staying several steps ahead.  His opposite number on the force is played by Scott Brady (younger brother of badboy Laurence Tierney) who is affected emotionally because the two cops shot are his friends. He’s too determined to track down Roy and lets this blind him to a more effective approach to get the killer.

The film brings greater pleasure to me because of the presence of a legendary character actor, Whit Bissell (left in the photo above). This guy was in everything but is best known as the scientist who created a Teenage Werewolf (Michael Landon) and Teenage Frankenstein (Gary Conway). White also shows up in Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), as a fugitive wife murderer, and as a cynical prisoner guard captured and tortured by inmates in Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954). Buried deep in the uncredited actors is Kenneth Tobey, another favorite, only a few years away from his iconic turn in The Thing (1951).

He Walked by Night ends with a chase through the sewers that pre-dates a similar denouement in The Third Man (1949) in the Vienna sewers. Both Roy Martin and Harry Lime use the sewers as ways to escape and baffle the law. The sewers work so well for them that they must think it inconceivable this is where they’ll meet their doom. The police and authorities don’t remain stupid forever.

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